Recorded on Tuesday 18 September in the Hallstrom Theatre as part of the Australian Museum's 2018 Lunchtime Conversation Series.
Australian Museum Director and CEO Kim McKay AO has led the transformation of the nation’s first museum into one of the world's pre-eminent natural history and cultural institutions. Kim also co-founded the Clean Up Australia and Clean Up the World campaigns, and was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for distinguished service to the environment and the community. She offers reflections on the historic, scientific and cultural significance of the newly-restored Westpac Long Gallery, the nation’s first gallery, and its collection of treasures.
Kim McKay speaks with Tracey Holmes in the Hallstrom Theatre.
Sue Saxon: Good afternoon. Welcome everyone, it's really great to see familiar faces and to welcome staff from the museum as well. My name is Sue Saxon and I'm looking after programming at the museum, and would like to welcome you and acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which the Australian Museum stands, the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation. I pay my respects to their elders past, present, and those emerging.
So it's great to see you here for the penultimate, the fifth Lunchtime Lecture in our series exploring Australians who've shaped our nation. and who featured in the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition in the Westpac Long Gallery.
I think you will agree with me that each session has been absolutely eye-opening and that Ita Buttrose, Layne Beachley, George Miller and Dick Smith have shared really inspiring insights into the forces that have shaped both their lives and careers.
But today we have a very special guest. In fact we've two special guests. Today, Kim McKay, our director and CEO of the Australian Museum is joined by renowned ABC journalist Tracey Holmes, in a sparkling conversation traversing the concept and context of the 200 Treasures exhibition. She'll be talking about her vision for the future of the museum and her professional journey to leading Australia's oldest and most prestigious museum of natural sciences, Indigenous and Pacific culture and its 21 million-strong collection.
Kim McKay was appointed to the director's role in 2014 and she's the first woman to hold that role in the museum's nearly 200-year-old history. In that time she's initiated an impressive transformation program including enshrining free general admission for children into government policy, constructing new, award-winning spaces which include the Crystal Hall and of course Westpac Long Gallery; and establishing the Australian Museum Centre for Citizen Science, which is part of AMRI, the Australian Museum Research Institute.
So as always there'll be an opportunity for your questions, so have them ready. And now please join me in welcoming Tracey Holmes to kick off this session. Thank you.
Tracey Holmes: Thanks so much, Sue. I'd just like to say that I know you've heard from the four speakers beforehand, and Kim was just joking to me that, you know, I get the lucky opportunity of introducing the B List. Far from it. Far from it. Kim has been an expert on the other side of the microphone and now it's my turn to try and coax the best out of her, as she's done with each of the previous guests.
Well, when you consider that a museum is a place where we like to house and store and reflect on pieces of historic, cultural, scientific and artistic value, then you could not have anyone better to run this place. And I also don't doubt that after Kim and you and I have long departed this planet, there will be a tribute to Kim here, inside this museum, because she qualifies on all fronts.
The work she's done…
Kim McKay: I'll probably be stuffed…
Tracey Holmes: Well, why not? Embalmed and hung over the Crystal Entry I would have thought, Kim.
So over the many years of service to the environment that we live in, Kim has not only helped change the country, but also in the four years here she's really changed the Australian Museum, and the recognition that it is now afforded around the world. Personally I think one of her greatest achievements is as co-founder of the Clean Up Australia and Clean Up the World campaign, which we'll get her to talk about. But as anyone who has ever worked with her and every single one of her staff here will be able to tell you, every minute is another opportunity to do something. Kim's energy knows no bounds. Please welcome her.
Kim, if truth be told you could be sitting here on your own giving a half-hour monologue. You really don't need a side-kick. So I'm not actually sure what my role is here. But let me start with this: when you look back over a lifetime of not just the work you've done, the volunteer stuff that you've done that has taken you around the world, that has seen you involved in so many different aspects, that do actually make a difference to the world we live in—what is it that you feel most proud of?
Kim McKay: It's really interesting, because I don't often reflect on that. I'm always a great believer that you're only as good as the last thing you just did or achieved. And I'm always on to the next thing. So I don't often sit down and reflect on, 'Oh that's great, I'm really proud of that.' I try and take joy in everything I do. Probably the opposite question to that is what am I most embarrassed by. There could be a whole raft of things there.
Look, obviously co-founding Clean Up 20-odd years ago, 25 years ago now. It was just the right project at the right time, and taking it internationally, which really was my project, was very satisfying, and getting to see people all over the world respond and getting to see the commonality of the problem around the world. And the most disappointing aspect of that now is of course that 25 years ago there should have been just much more action to stop plastic in the world's oceans or the way we consume packaging. So the waste issue to me was sort of a barometer for other environmental issues. So it was very early, I guess, in community awareness to get involved in that and to think up how to run a national project like that was really good fun…
Tracey Holmes: Not just national, but when it went international, because so many of us we see situations and we go, 'What could we do to help? How can we do that? How can we get involved?' People stop my husband all the time who is Indigenous, and they say, 'We want to make a difference, but how do we do it?' How did you do that? How did you take this program nationally and then internationally to convince people it's really simple, just do your bit.
Kim McKay: Well, I think for any project or program to work it has to be a good idea at the right time. We've discussed here over the last few weeks people's achievements and timing being critical to that. With Clean Up Australia it had a number of elements going for it, but it was…you know I'm a great believer that community participation makes the difference, causes behaviour change. If you can get hands on and grapple with the problem. You know, it's not liking something on Facebook. That's not participation. And Clean Up was great because it was sort of easy to do. But it really made a significant difference to the people involved.
The first clean up of Sydney Harbour, which was on the 8th January, 1989, it was a Sunday, a beautiful January Sunday, 40,000 people turned out. Now, we only get 20,000 to the football finals the other day in Sydney. So it was an extraordinary turnout of the community. And what was most revealing about that, apart from the 5,000-odd tonnes of rubbish that the community dragged out of the harbour—and we had been using Sydney Harbour as a garbage dump since white settlement, and that was really shocking to discover in that way. But it was the 3,000 syringes we picked up on the beaches around the harbour, and that wasn't known about. There was the needle exchange program in the Cross at the time and needles were being dropped in the streets, washed down the stormwater drains and floated right across the harbour depending on which way the wind and the currents took the needles.
And of course this was at the height of the AIDS crisis awareness here, and so to pick up 3,000 needles off the beaches was just a staggering thing to discover, and of course changed the government policy immediately.
Tracey Holmes: You're the first woman to run this institution in its 190-year history, the first non-scientist. I think the Liberal Party's looking for someone just like you.
Kim McKay: Well, I live in Warringah, so…
Tracey Holmes: What are you waiting for, Kim?
Kim McKay: Yeah. Look, I guess this job is a wonderful job…
Tracey Holmes: How did you come into this job?
Kim McKay: Oh, kismet. I was invited by the state government to serve on the Trust, to become a trustee of the museum, due to my background working for National Geographic and Discovery Channel in the United States for a decade, and the work I'd done with Clean Up and other projects, and I'd done a lot of citizen science projects. And I had never considered running the Australian Museum at all. But inside me there was this desire to do something significant.
I was working for myself at the time, my consultancy, I'd come back from America and started a consulting company doing a lot in the sustainability area, wrote a number of books; the True Green series, they were tip books about the environment…
Tracey Holmes: Because none of that was significant, so you were looking to do something significant. Cleaning up the world was not significant enough.
Kim McKay: No, well I was ready for something else significant, something new. And the director Frank Howarth who was here was stepping down after ten years, and the ad appeared in the paper, on my birthday. And I was away with a bunch of girlfriends who I've been friends with for a very long time and they're very honest people and know me very well. And we were sitting around and I said, 'Oh look, here's the ad for the museum director,' and I read it out to them. And they all looked at me and they said, 'That's you.' And that was really the first time I'd looked and thought about it in that way.
So I started thinking about it and waited to the very last day when applications closed. And I didn't even write a cover letter, I just sent my resume to the head-hunters and said, 'Oh you'll see I'm on the Trust. I'm interested.' And then I rang Catherine Livingstone, who was the president of the Trust, and her governance shutter came down immediately and we didn't speak a friendly word again till it was all over.
But it was the first time I'd applied for a job since I was 22. I'd been offered all my jobs in that period. So it was a really scary process to go through. And because I wasn't a man—now that may sound funny—but I knew most of…you know if you look at a lot of...before I started here, all the museum directors in Australia were men, pretty much. One woman at the time. And they were all scientists pretty much, of natural history museums.
So being the first non-scientist, and I joke and say that well I'm a social scientist, that's part of what I studied, which is the worst kind of scientist of all. So it was a really interesting process to go through, that recruitment, through a head-hunting firm and…I had to have 13 referees. Everyone else I think had about three or four. And it was because there was nervousness amongst some of the other trustees that because I wasn't a scientist they'd be hung out to dry.
Tracey Holmes: That is a phenomenal story in itself, you know, that you had to go through a completely different process to all of the others that had applied. Were all the men that applied scientists?
Kim McKay: British men. A lot of them. There were a few Australians. I knew I'd be up against…when it got down to the final two I guessed it would be a British man, because there was this feeling that they are the only people that can run museums.
Tracey Holmes: And so once you had their confidence and you got the job, you must have come in here thinking, do I tread softly for the first six months, or do I just go to town and do what you do best, Kim?
Kim McKay: How long have you known me? Tread softly was not in my vocabulary and I wasn't intending to do that. In fact a lovely former director here, a beautiful man, Frank Talbot, who's in his 80s now, who was the director here and went on to run the Smithsonian in Washington, he took me to lunch not long after I started and gave me his advice. And he said, 'You know, Kim, I'd just spend the first year observing.' I said, 'Oh, God, Frank, it's a bit late for that.' I think it was on my first day here that I decided that they'd put the entrance in the wrong spot, which had been there for 145 years, on College Street, and it needed to change. So I marched down in my first week to the Department of (we were then in the Department of Trade and Industry) and I said to them, 'Thank you for giving me the job to run this museum, but it's in need of some help.' I actually didn't say it quite that subtly. So I walked out. A week later I had the money to build Crystal Hall. So you know, you've got to be determined. I guess they were looking for someone who would breathe some new life into the museum.
Tracey Holmes: And so the ideas and the concepts, you've never been short of an idea, it doesn't matter what job you were doing, but the concept for the Westpac Long Gallery, and the 200 Treasures, where did that come from?
Kim McKay: I'm good at stealing ideas, so I think the British Museum, you know, Neil MacGregor the former director of the British Museum had published the book on 100 Objects that Changed the World and I thought well you know in our collection we have 21 million objects and specimens, there are certainly good stories in that collection that can be shared.
And so taking a leaf from the British Museum's idea, what if we put a hundred objects. And of course these things cost much more than you ever think. The budget we drew for the Long Gallery restoration was $9 million. And I wanted to do something significant for our 190th that would be a legacy and be a new attraction for the museum and show more of the collection.
I knew I'd need to raise some corporate sponsorship money and the head of the Department of Trade and Industry had said to me, 'Well if you can find a corporate partner for $3 million, we'll match it and give you $3 million from the government.' And then we said we could raise up to $3 million from donors. And that seemed to me like, 'Good, three threes are nine. Okay, we can do that.'
And then of course I realised it was Westpac's 200th anniversary coming up at the same time we turned 190. And Westpac had been our major partner for Clean Up Australia way back when. So there were still a few people kicking around who knew me, and I just started reaching out to people I knew and eventually we convinced them that it was a great idea. But we made it 200 Treasures then, because it was their 200th anniversary. We wanted to have our 100 objects but that's where the people came from, being 100 people.
Tracey Holmes: And how did you select the people, because any list, it doesn't matter if you're talking sports stars, politicians, actors and actresses, you know, the world's most impressive people. How do you come up with 100 people and make it non-controversial—or is part of the trick to make it as controversial as possible and get people talking?
Kim McKay: Yes, we did want to make it more controversial. So we started off by researching all the other lists that existed. Who were the people on those lists? And what became screamingly obvious was there weren't enough women on the lists (there certainly must have been like a Liberal Party meeting) and there weren't enough Indigenous people on the list either, who'd contributed so significantly.
And by stepping into the foray of social history, I wanted to make sure that the list was more reflective of the true Australia. You know, growing up, learning about Australian history, women weren't featured very much in our history books. I always ask people this question: who knows who Mary Leigh is?
Okay. So Mary Leigh is in the 100 people list, if you go into the gallery upstairs. Mary Leigh was a woman I learned about through work. I was doing some consulting work for the Royal Australian Mint. And they wanted to…International Women's Day was coming up and they wanted to put a woman on a coin. And we were sitting around brainstorming. They wanted someone from history, and of course Caroline Chisholm was already on the five dollar note. And the more I thought about this, the more I realised I just didn't know any names of women other than maybe MacArthur and you know, from our early history, and started looking into it, and came across Mary Leigh who was from South Australia. And she led the Suffragette Movement, and of course South Australia being the second place in the world to grant suffrage to women after New Zealand.
And she was the champion of that movement. And so I rang this academic at the University of Adelaide and she was the expert on Mary Leigh. And I said, 'We're going to put her on a coin.' This was back in the '90s. And she burst into tears on the phone and said, 'I've been trying to get this woman recognition here in Australia.'
She is a name we should all know. She was a heroine for Australia, what she did at that particular time. And her speeches resonate today as much as they did when she gave them in the South Australian parliament. She was a feisty, feisty Irishwoman, and to me she should be a legend. Now in Adelaide, if you walk around the main street there down towards the museum and art gallery there are some statues, some busts of famous South Australians. And she is one of those. And South Australians, some know her.
So Mary Leigh is on the list of course. So people like that, who should have been on lists before now, who weren't. And we put a committee together of all sorts of people. Some people from the museum, some of our trustees, other people in the community. And we started debating and having these meetings to talk about who should be on this list and from what sector and why. And it was a really interesting process to go through.
Tracey Holmes: I'm really interested, you said you wanted it to be representative of the true Australia, and I think that's a really interesting two words, because the 'true Australia' changes constantly.
Kim McKay: It does, doesn't it? And it's changing right now.
Tracey Holmes: Exactly. But in some ways very quickly, in other ways certainly not quick enough. But how do you define true Australia, and then what role does an institution like the Australian Museum play in that, in reflecting ourselves back to each other as times change?
Kim McKay: Well, I think that's the great joy of working in a museum, is you can step back sometimes and have perspective, and think about that. Yes, Australia today is very different than it was in the 1850s and '60s, when this museum started really emerging. And women were treated very differently then—or not. And Aboriginal people were treated very differently. Migrants were treated very differently, although we see waves of this.
So there are always commonalities back then to now, too. But I think it gives you perspective. I think you can look at the past and learn from it, and take lessons from it and then help think about today. You know last week when we listened to Dick Smith, who's a fervent Australian, and he has a particular vision for what Australia could be and should be. I don't necessarily agree with all of his ideologies but I think it's really important that each and every one of us think about that more. And if the museum can be a place that provokes thought or debate or discussion around that, then I think we're doing our job.
I don't think we should be prescriptive abut it. I think you look out on the floor today and see the schoolchildren who come here, and you see how Australia is changing from immigration. And personally I don't think that's a bad thing at all. I was very lucky at age five, we moved overseas for my dad's job and I learned that the world was a very big place and had lots of different people in it, and my life has only been richer because of knowing people from many different parts of the world.
And I think Australia in 100 years, yes will look quite different from today, too. But that doesn't mean to say that we can't hang on to the values that made this country what it is. And we have some very strong values in Australia, and I do think that—you know, I've been really fortunate to travel the length and breadth of Australia when we were doing Clean Up. Remember, I was a young woman in my late 20s, and I had to go around the country convincing principally men in local government and state government that this was a good thing to do.
People in Western Australia, the men I dealt with there weren't very nice. They look at you coming from the east telling us what to do. It was, 'No, we're not, we just hope that you'll get involved.' But what I did learn was that Australians were great people, no matter where we went, all around Australia, just met fantastic people who just wanted to do the right thing by their community, who wanted to improve their community, who wanted to look after waterways better, who wanted to have a better life for their children or grandchildren.
And that binds us together, that we have this fantastic country that we live in together, pretty peacefully, you know, compared to most places on earth. And there are some strong values behind that, and I think we need to recognise how fortunate we are and keep that for the future.
Tracey Holmes: Is part of the problem, Kim—and I know you've worked in and around the media industry for a long time—is part of the problem that everything we see and read is an extreme. It's the extreme left or the extreme right, and everything is an argument, everything is a battle, because I see Australia how you see it. In the middle we've got this fantastic country with great people from here, there and everywhere, that all just want a better place.
Kim McKay: Well, I think social media has…I mean extremes have been highlighted at different times through history, it's not just now through social media, but I think that is what's driving the focus on extremes at the moment. All of our successful leaders in Australia, successful prime ministers, for example, are the people who've pretty much tried to govern down the middle. Because you have to, because that's where most of us sit. I hate it when people try and appeal to either the far right or the far left in something, because it's not where our psyche is at as a population.
You know, the gay marriage votes shocked a lot of people, about how Australians voted and also particularly the electorates and how they voted in different ways. And I think that was a little barometer, that hey, maybe some of our politicians don't have their finger on the pulse at all. And it's unfortunate that social media highlights the negativity that happens. It's happening in America too, that…it's a very interesting medium to think that you can be anonymous and troll people in that way. It's dreadful in that sense. It didn't exist before in that way. If you wanted to say something you had to come out and thump the person basically and be very public about it. Now you can be hidden about your beliefs or weirdness.
So we're living in interesting times, but that, too, will play out. And I think so long as we hold on to those core values that our parents taught us or our grandparents taught us about fairness, I think we'll go a long way in Australia.
Tracey Holmes: I just want to ask you a couple more questions before we open it up to the floor and take your questions for Kim. I guess one of the biggest challenges in a job like yours is finding the money to do what you want to do and what you need to do, and it's a difficult environment, isn't it, looking for money, and the sorts of money that you need for an organisation and institution like this?
Kim McKay: It is. Well, historically Australia has not been as philanthropic as some other countries around the world. Some European countries, America—because we always had a really good social safety net system here, it was always seen as the government's responsibility to look after people. And as that social safety net has been further peeled away, I think there is more pressure on the wealthier end of town to contribute to institutions like ours or, indeed, whether it be health institutions, all sorts of…the competing for that philanthropic dollar is very difficult. We need to raise money from the private sector now.
A few years ago I looked at the list of the top ten wealthiest people in Australia, and only four of them had claimed a tax deduction for any charitable giving that year. Now, whether or not they decided not to claim a tax deduction and just let Australia have it… I doubt it. Because wealthy people want to minimise their tax as much as possible.
So I think the tradition of philanthropy needs to be more embedded now. We're going to need it more in the future. And look, the rich have got very rich in this country, and in other countries too, and I think the sense of giving back—and we all want to give back. I imagine there are many people in this audience who per capita percentage of their wealth give more than the wealthiest. So you can give back in lots of ways; you can be a volunteer and give back, and that's really terribly important. We rely on lots of volunteers here at the museum. We have a list of over 500 people who volunteer here. We've got a growing base of donors as well.
But it is really difficult and competitive and it's relentless. We have to raise now, as part of our development, redevelopment of the museum, we're calling it Project Discover I think. So we received a $50.5 million grant from the state government earlier this year and the condition around that is that we have to raise $7 million ourselves towards it. And that's not an easy job. We've got a great team here at the museum, and everyone is committed to doing that. The staff are committed and our different boards are committed. We have the Australian Museum Foundation leading that charge, so…but it's tough.
Tracey Holmes: I've got to let you know that Kim is always telling me, in recent times, that she's so old now, which just makes me feel really old, because you're not that much older than me, Kim. Kim was my first boss, so we do go back a fair way. I want to ask you this, I've always wanted to ask you this: was there ever a time when you were shy? When you didn't just bowl up to anybody, any time, ask them for any thing or to give or contribute or to make a difference?
Kim McKay: No. My mother used to say, because I talked a lot as a child and still do now, Mum used to say, 'Did you have gramophone needles for breakfast?' I always liked chatting to people and never was afraid to ask anyone for anything. I can name on one hand the times I've felt slightly intimidated in my life by a situation or a person.
Tracey Holmes: I bet you can't.
Kim McKay: Well, you know, I was chatting to some women in the audience before. In 2010, I managed Oprah's visit to Australia. And we all called her Miss Winfrey. Not Oprah. Because she's such a legend, I suppose. And it was only later during the tour that I got to call her Oprah, I think. That was drinking tequila shots with her. But she was a bit intimidating.
Tracey Holmes: Yeah. I'll give you that one. Fair enough. What would you like your legacy to be?
Kim McKay: Tequila shots… No. Look, I just think you've got to give it your best shot, no matter what you're doing. No matter what you do, give it your best shot. And don't give up if you really want to do something. That's really hard to say, because sometimes things work against you, and if the timing's wrong. A number of things have to go your way. You need luck on your side a lot of the time. And I've been, touch wood, really lucky in life, as well. Luck has often been on my side. I've been in the right place at the right time. But just give it your best. Don't cheat yourself by doing it half-baked.
Tracey Holmes: All right. I think a really nice note to open up to the floor. Who'd like to ask Kim the first question?
Kim McKay: Don't be afraid…
Tracey Holmes: Actually, be afraid, be very afraid. I did see some hands start to go up…there we go.
Audience question 1: Hi. I've been blown away by the people that you know. You've known everyone that we've been to so far. You either went to school with them, or…and the variety of jobs that you've done. So what was the beginning, how did that all start, and your training?
Kim McKay: I had two parents who both left school at 14. And growing up, if you had asked me at age five what I was going to do, my response was, 'I'm going to university.' Both of my parents, especially my mother, instilled in me the need for an education. And moving overseas at age five was the best eye-opener and education a kid from the Northern Beaches could have had, really. It opened up a whole world. It gave me that understanding that this was an incredible, different world that we lived in.
We moved to England. We went by ship so we went up through the Suez Canal before it closed. That was 1965. And it just changed my perspective on everything. Made me love going to museums, and every weekend my mother made us go on an excursion, either in the family car or in a bus (I hate bus trips now) to a historic site. You know, the four of us would go off and she would pick them and we would have to learn about them and read everything and look at everything at this castle, Runnymede or wherever it was, and then on the way home we would be quizzed about what we saw.
Tracey Holmes: That is so funny, because we lived in China for a while and our youngest son was three when we first moved there, and any time people came to visit of course they wanted to go to the Great Wall, and so this particular weekend our three-year-old says, 'Where are we going this weekend?' I said, 'We're going to the Great Wall.' And he's like, 'Not the Great Wall again.' People would give their right arm for that sort of experience.
Kim McKay: It was having, I think, parents who made us believe—and I have a sister who's a couple of years older than me—that we could do anything that we set our mind to do. And I went to a girls school where that's just what we were taught. It wasn't that we had to compete against men, if we wanted to do something we could do it.
I was very outspoken. I debated. I did my first debate in primary school and I was terrible. And I will never forget the embarrassment I felt at being so awful. And I was determined I was going to be the best then at that. Like never to stand up and not give a good talk or speech or something. And then I started doing competitive public speaking at the age of 12, 13, something like that. And that was an incredible advantage going through school and university, to be able to think on your feet and to be able to share ideas with people off the cuff. And I always say to people who ask me about their kids or grandkids, what should they do, I say, 'Make sure they can speak.'
Australian people were never taught to speak up. In other countries they were. In America everybody has an opinion. They're not always the right opinions, or good ones, but they're not afraid to speak their mind. And I think that it's a great ability, a great asset for you to have that inbuilt confidence that you're not afraid to give a speech or to share your ideas and opinions. And part of that is learning to listen to other people's opinions and respect those as well. So by doing competitive debating and public speaking all through school…I wanted to be an actress, actually. NIDA rejected me twice. You know, I've always thought George Miller one day would see the inner talent, but never did.
Audience question 2: Let me first start off with saying I think you really are the belle of the bell curve. But I'd like to talk to you about my Great Wall of China, which is technology. I'm educated, but only last year I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And I don't think I could get through a website to find employment at the moment, and that's the way all jobs are, online. I'm just wondering what you can suggest about that for me.
Kim McKay: Yes, I can, actually, because in my own family I've had a family member who has had issues and lost a number of jobs and was unemployed for a very long time. And I got very frustrated with her, saying, 'Surely you can find a job online.' But in her case there was just this barrier there. And she's very well qualified, but just couldn't break through. It was like a dead end every time she even sent off her resume. Hundreds of resumes, just never could break through.
And in the end she was helped actually through the government employment service, she was on unemployment benefits. And they said, 'Look, we're going to put you in a training program to do retail sales.' Now she felt this was so far below her but she went and did it anyway, because she thought 'Oh well I might learn something new'. And she got a job through this scheme after the six weeks of training at Myer. And it gave her a year of steady employment. And that's now led to a much better job, on double the money she was earning. And it's improved her confidence no end.
I'm a great believer that all of us need purpose in life. That you've got to have purpose to get up every day and give it that best shot. If you don't have that then you're in a no-win situation. So how do you get that, how do you break through? And I think it's just take any opportunity you can. Do something that would surprise yourself. It's hard and you may feel degraded a little by doing it, but if you take that first step to another it's remarkable what opportunities could open up. Like if you…you sit at home every day, nothing's going to happen. Opportunity's not going to knock on your front door…
Audience member: Recently I was unsuccessful in even gaining an interview for a fairly low level job, casual, on the weekend, with the state government. I was pretty upset about this because I had given them many volunteer hours some time ago and I thought I knew that area extremely well. So I did go in to see the personnel manager of the place that I applied for a job with and she was extremely pleasant. She did talk to me for about three hours, and I did explain to her some of my achievements in many different areas and while she was sympathetic, saying that she knew it was difficult for many people, including people with ADHD, people from a language other than English background, but that was what the state government used. When pressed, she did offer to send the thing I wrote to the diversity committee, but that is where it lies now, which to me sounds like it's a bit of a cemetery, where it's gone to.
Kim McKay: Well one of the good things about working in the government is they do take diversity seriously, and…
Audience member: Can I beg to differ…
Tracey Holmes: Can I just jump in and I don't mean to interrupt you at all but I think this is…it's a really good discussion and valid points that you're raising. Can we pick this up after the 2 o'clock? Only to allow other people to ask questions. Is that okay with you?
Thanks so much. I know there was someone here that wanted to ask a question?
Audience question 3: I just want to ask you a little bit about being the first woman in the role, but also just generally being in the leadership role as a woman among a lot of men, because it's quite topical at the moment about gender equality. And I guess my question to you is what is your advice to the younger people coming up and wanting to step into the leadership role but doesn't quite have the confidence to pursue it. What would your advice be to them?
Kim McKay: Keep going. I think that you learn about leadership as you go through life. It doesn't necessarily come naturally. I mean yes, I was a bossy child probably in the playground, and organised people, but…
Tracey Holmes: Probably?
Kim McKay: A bossy woman now, maybe. But keep going. If you've got your mind set on something, only you can make it happen, so don't give up. I won't say I don't like taking no for an answer, I always find another way around. So you know you get setbacks. It's not a straight path to anything. It just isn't. You zigzag all the way there and go around things and look for ways. But if you're determined to get somewhere you will get there. Learning about leadership and really leadership is as much about empowering others to do things than it is you doing them, too. People want inspiration, yes, and they want some vision. But it's really…good leadership is allowing others to shine and to grow as well.
I'm very proud here we have Dr Rebecca Johnson, now Professor Rebecca Johnson who's the first woman to lead our Australian Museum Research Institute. And she's an extraordinary young scientist…young, I mean she's in her 40s, you know. But world class and world leading in the work she does. And seeing Rebecca grow in that role is very satisfying. So look, I just think you get opportunities offered to you, take them, take risks. I've done a number of things where I've just stepped out of my comfort zone and taken risks. And it was very unsettling at the time. But you get through them. The resilience, I guess, that you need to find inside yourself if you want to get there.
I look at some of these people who run these large corporations and think Oh my God how do you do that? I said to a man I really admire who's actually now head of Premier and Cabinet in NSW, so he's the most senior public servant in NSW, and I went to seek his advice about something, because this is the first time I've worked in government, and I said, 'How do you keep on top of all of this?' He had a multibillion-dollar budget in Transport back then. And he said, 'Oh well I pay attention to the detail.' He said, 'I try and stay…watch the details, because if they're going wrong there then there's other things going wrong.' And I went, 'Right. Watch the details.' And then he said, 'Oh, and I've got a photographic memory.'
I don't. So I just think that, you know. Everyone says it. It sounds trite but if you want to do something you've got to set your mind to it. Have goals. I didn't have goals when I was young. I knew I wanted to do things but I didn't have specific goals. I wish someone had said to me have goals. They might have been the wrong goals, like they might have changed over time. But it wasn't until I was living and working in America that I met someone who talked to me about goal setting, and I worked out what I thought I wanted to do with the rest of my life. It sort of came true.
Tracey Holmes: Is that what you would do differently if you had your time again?
Kim McKay: Yeah. What, after they stuff me at the museum and put…
Tracey Holmes: Exactly, have you floating above the entrance…
Kim McKay: Come back and haunt everyone. Look, I've met a lot of fantastic, successful people in my life. And most of them were pretty goal-oriented, focused people very young. And it took me longer to get there, I think. So I do think it's really important. You've got to be able to bring people with you in that process too. Back in my 20s we worked together on surfing. And I also worked on all the solo round the world yacht races, which was really interesting. And here were the people who were the most selfish group of people I've ever met in my life. Solo sailors. It's all about them. And yet there's teams of people behind them helping with things and everyone working to their goal. And a lot of the time they're so self focused because they've got to survive and they've got to get there. But it's goals and steps.
I worked with Jessica Watson on her solo round the world quest in the beginning, and Jess is an amazing, amazing young woman. I mean one of the most extraordinary people I've ever met and had the pleasure of working with. And she had a goal, a fixed goal. And she got there. Her feat is still extraordinary, and she's going to be an amazing adult. I mean she is already. She's in her 20s now. She's just finished her MBA in Melbourne and she's started working, and she comes up to visit me from time to time here to ask my advice about something. I always say I think I should be asking her advice, you know, she's just an extraordinary person. But yeah, goals. I'd have goals early.
Audience question 4: Kim, you've done a lot of philanthropic work yourself, and that gives a lot back to the community and to the world in general. But what has that done for you, how has that changed you in how you approach your life and in how you approach your work as well?
Kim McKay: Well money, believe it or not, has never been a huge motivator for me, and I think in every study done of employees, yes, money is good to have, you know, you can lead a lifestyle, but it's always been more about the job itself and getting the satisfaction from that job. And working in the not for profit sector, we used to joke a lot of the time, not for profit, not for fun.
You know, I was watching people in banks earning a lot of money and not earning as much and thinking I'm going to be a poor old lady. But, you know, I'll be all right. It's the sense of satisfaction of doing a job well, of doing your best, of being part of your community, and you get a lot of joy back from that, I do. It's very sustaining. I think you talk to anyone, whether it's volunteering with Meals on Wheels or it doesn't matter what you do, it is much more satisfying, you get more back out of it.
So many people I know, some of whom work here, who are heavily involved in their school for their children or local community thing or the Nippers of whatever it might be. How do they have time to give back when they're trying to run a family. They do it because you're part of your community. And if we're not giving back in our community, what is there? Do we want to go shopping all the time? No. That's Singapore. You want to play a role in your community and your society and have the fabric of our society enriched by that. And it's just wonderfully, personally satisfying, to think that if you did help make a difference, that is a good thing.
Audience question 5: Yes, Kim, to get back to the museum, when you have big exhibits from overseas like the Terracotta Warriors and the Mammoths, through whose suggestion is that done? Researchers, scientists, and who does the funding? Does that country take care of it, or do we have to pay big money?
Kim McKay: No, we pay, this end. So the international museum sector creates what we know as blockbuster exhibitions. We have two touring North America now that we created here in Australia: our Spiders exhibition is at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada, it's the largest museum in North America, at the moment, doing super well. And also our Tyrannosaurs Meet the Family exhibition that we created here is touring North America, as well to record crowds. And we're doing that, the reason we've taken those two exhibitions offshore and are selling them for the season. So it's like you rent them in. And there's a guaranteed monthly fee that has to be paid. And that, hopefully, as that business model gets up and running for us, could generate us as we tour more exhibitions, you know, a clear profit of a million dollars a year, which we need to our bottom line.
So that's good, it also builds our reputation. It gives our exhibition creators and our scientists an opportunity to show their talents on the global stage. So it's a very good brand-builder and reputation builder for the museum.
When we bring exhibitions in here—our Whales exhibition opens on 20 October and that's from Te Papa Museum in Wellington, and it's a beautiful exhibition about the story of whales in the Pacific and the Maori connection with whales as well as our own Indigenous connection with whales. It's a really fantastic exhibition. So we do a deal. It's a business deal. We sit down and negotiate. So somebody might be travelling and see a great exhibition overseas, or we get approached by somebody. I loved the fact that when we brought in Mammoths a lot of our staff argued with me and I won. That was fun. Or we create our own. We've got a number of exhibition ideas in development currently. So if anyone has a good idea for an exhibition, we look at it. We have to develop a business case around it. We've got to say, 'How many tickets will we sell?' 'Who is the audience this is going to appeal to?' 'What else is maybe going to happen in Sydney at that time?'
We do the big blockbusters usually over the summer period. We've got very restricted exhibition space, which is why we're building new space on site, so that we can take the larger exhibitions like in 2021 Tutankhamen. So it's a business, and as museum director you have to be on top of the business side of it. Because if you guess wrong or plan incorrectly, you can lose a lot of money. Some exhibitions cost a lot of money to bring to the country, so number one, if we have them for six months, so the monthly fee over that time…I've got to sell enough tickets, and I'm competing with Hoyts to get the bums on seats.
Competing for the public's attention, trying to break through the clutter of everything else happening around town. And sometimes we get support from Destination New South Wales, the tourism body, who might sponsor the exhibition, give us some funding to do additional marketing because they feel it's going to bring tourists in to the city. But it's a gamble, but sometimes you have to trust your gut. And I'm not afraid to take a risk sometimes, either, because I have that…you know, I've been working for a long time now, nearly 40 years, so I've got lots of life experience behind me to go, I think that will work. And sometimes it's gut. Sometimes we do a lot of research. So we ask our visitors to the museum…you might get stopped from time to time by a person asking you questions about, what do you think about this exhibition. So we'll put it in to audience research as well, to see if the audience wants to see it.
So lots of factors come into play. But it's a fascinating area, actually, because it's that real business side of the museum. And it's really important because the more people we get through the door, the more people we can attract maybe to join up as members of the museum. The more they'll go to another gallery and learn something about what the museum is doing or think of supporting it in some way, or meet a scientist on the floor who's doing something. So it's our goal collectively for the museum to be a lively, interesting, dynamic place as much as possible. If you haven't been to Nature Photographer of the Year, the Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year exhibition upstairs, please go; it's beautiful. And it's lovely…
Museums are described sometimes as slow and reflective places where you can step back and look at something without being hassled by what's going on outside. And so they're special places for that. I of course also like noise and activity, so the combination of those things. I hope the Westpac Long Gallery, for example, is a really reflective space where each cabinet tells a story and reveals something about our extraordinary collections. You can create these really wonderful spaces through it and we've got some really exciting plans over the next few years to bring our collections out and to create exhibitions that we will tour.
We're working on a fascinating sharks exhibition, actually, long term. Our taxidermist downstairs…you know sharks don't have a skeleton, it's cartilage. And she's been peeling back the layers. Fascinating stuff.
Tracey Holmes: I think we might be able to squeeze one more question in.
Audience question 6: Thank you, it's just a very short question. What do you think has been the most significant insight, approach or contribution that you have offered to the museum since you have the position as director?
Kim McKay: I loved that we've formalised citizen science here, so the museum had been involved in citizen science projects since the 1970s. There was a lovely project created out of here that went on to be run by a different organisation called Birds in Back Yards. And our team here six years ago created the DigiVol project, which is the digital volunteers, to help us digitise collections. Paul Flemons did that. And to put an umbrella over that, the Centre for Citizen Science, I've always been involved in citizen science initiatives. Clean Up, we used to do the Rubbish Report, where we'd count at different sites the sort of rubbish that was picked up, and that was published every year and used to inform government policy.
And then when I was at National Geographic I co-created a project called the Genographic Project which is a population DNA study around the world that involves swabbing your cheek—before Ancestry.com did it—to find out where your deep ancestry came from. And of course working with indigenous peoples around the world. And that is citizen science on steroids, and now well over a million people have participated in that project, and really helped fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of human history. So I think citizen science is wonderful, and last year we launched Frog ID, which I'm very proud of, with Dr Jodi Rowley here who's our herpetologist and there are 240-odd frog species in Australia, we don't know what's happening to them. Frogs are among the most endangered group of animals in the world. They're impacted by climate change, by urbanisation, and other changes that are happening in our environment. And so Jodi wanted to find out what's happening to Australia's frogs, because they are the canary in the coalmine of showing us that not all is well.
And Frog ID, we created the app with IBM's support, they gave us half a million dollars of in-kind and cash support to develop that. We applied to the federal government for their new citizen science grants, and we were successful in gaining the largest grant of almost half a million dollars. And so we created Frog ID, and as of this morning, over 60,000 people have downloaded the app for free across Australia, which is just great. And we've registered and identified over 35,716 frog calls. Frogs are identified by the call they make, not by what they look like, by and large, and Frog ID we coined the term 'Audio DNA' to record that. So over the next few years we'll be continuing to roll that project out and hopefully we'll discover some new species of frogs.
But we'll have that snapshot because of the public. But you know citizen science is coming into its own because of the smart phone. That amount of technology that you hold in your hand is a game changer for citizen scientists. And to think that in a couple of years time we will have a handle on 240 species of frogs and what they're doing in Australia will be significant for biodiversity planning, and for species conservation. And that's a great achievement, because frogs are really important, cute little animals. And it's not easy being green.
Tracey Holmes: Look, the smart phone has given us so much. It's changed our lives in ways that we really can't measure. But the one thing it cannot do is give us more time, and we have gone past our time today. Kim, before we wrap up, did you want to just mention a couple of events that are happening next week? You've got the last one in this series.
Kim McKay: Yes. Also thanks to Tracey, too. I'll thank her in a minute. Our final guest for the series next week will be Noel Gordon. Noel of course was at the CSIRO in the team that created Wi-Fi. Changed the world that we live in today, and an extraordinary Australian, and of course that Wi-Fi team is featured in our 100 Treasures group of people. So we'll be in conversation with Noel next week. I can't wait to meet him. I don't know him, so that'll be fun.
And also, I just wanted to mention, we're doing a lot more in the climate change space because I think it's timely that we do that here and the museum is a good place to do that. Dr Jenny Newell up there is spearheading a lot of that work here. And we've got next Thursday evening—is that this Thursday? Thursday week—the Tackling Climate Change: Why You're More Powerful Than You Think, a night talk featuring seasoned campaigners Anna Rose and Joseph Zane Sikulu of 350.org. Now, Anna is someone I've worked with a lot—I launched her book for her and did the tour with her. She's a terrific young Australian, and I think will be well worth listening to. So if you're around next Thursday week try and come along to that. We're doing a program here at the moment called Oceania Rising, and it's part of that, working with Pacific communities who of course are so severely impacted by climate change. And they don't have much money, and they don't have a big advocacy platform. We're trying to draw attention to what's happening in their communities, and we think the museum is a good space for them to be able to voice those issues too.
So that's good, coming up. But Tracey, can I just thank you.
Tracey Holmes: No, no, no.
Kim McKay: I listen to Grandstand and also to The Ticket, because you raise issues in sport, which is very much part of the Australian culture that most people don't raise. But Tracey is involved in many other issues as well and it's just wonderful to have you come today. Thank you for doing this for me.
Tracey Holmes: Thank you, Kim. Please thank Kim McKay.
Lunctime Lecture Series: Australians Shaping the Nation is a series of talks with six distinguished Australians who are shaping the nation across science, sport and the arts running from 21 August to 25 September 2018.